King Charles III Defender of the Faith
UK Constitution

King Charles III — Defender of the Faith

It really ought to be a big story, because it is a big story. And yet, because it is prosaic continuity, nobody has really noticed. But at the Accession Council on Saturday 10th September 2022, the newly proclaimed King Charles III was also proclaimed Defender of the Faith.

As Prince of Wales, he had sometimes mulled the ecumenical virtue of possibly becoming ‘Defender of faith’ or ‘Defender of faiths’ in a pluralistic and multifaith society, and this is what many had expected. And others who hoped that the link between Church and State would be severed altogether believed the right moment to do it would be on the death of Queen Elizabeth II. But far from defending a liturgical multifaith mush or disestablishing anything, King Charles III doubled down, declaring:

I, Charles III by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of My other Realms and Territories King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled ‘An Act for securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government’ and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdoms for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland. So help me God.

This oath is a requirement of the 1707 Act of Union between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, and signing it was his first act as King. The Established Church of Scotland is Presbyterian, and recognises only Jesus Christ as ‘King and Head of the Church’. It has no ‘Supreme Governor’: when attending church services in Scotland, King Charles does so as an ordinary member, as did Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

In fact, by dying at Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth II made history, being the first monarch of the United Kingdom to die a Presbyterian; an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland. The first formal church service will therefore be at St Giles’ Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh.

But this is not mere formality or a matter of ecclesial geography. In England, Queen Elizabeth II was Supreme Governor of the Established Church of England, but whenever she crossed the border to stay at Balmoral Castle, she became Queen Elizabeth, the first of that name, and Presbyterian. This is (part of) the Constitution of the United Kingdom; the settlement made to make one Great Britain out of two Kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707. And so she was both Anglican and Presbyterian: her chaplains in England were Church of England; her chaplains in Scotland were Church of Scotland. This may be a challenge to binary thinkers and those who dwell on the polarities of mutually-exclusive ecclesial communions, but she discharged her duties north and south of the border in both the temporal and spiritual realms, and did so impeccably.

Of course, it matters not a jot whether Queen Elizabeth died a Presbyterian or an Anglican. Of eternal importance is only the fact that she died a devout Christian with a deep faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which she did.

Having been proclaimed Defender of the Faith, and having sworn that he will “inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion” in Scotland, we now know that King Charles III will do the same in England when he takes his Coronation Oath (or presides over his first State Opening of Parliament, whichever is first). And that Oath sworn by Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was clear in its mission of vocation:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

Having sworn to maintain and preserve the true Protestant Religion in Scotland, he can hardly not do so in England. Having sworn to maintain and preserve the rights and privileges of the Church of Scotland, he can hardly not do so for the Church of England. And so the reign of King Charles III will be continuity; spiritual contiguity with that of the late Queen Elizabeth II. He will be Defender of the Faith, and that faith is the Protestant Christian faith. And the reason for this is worth noting.

Back in 2005, he was asked in an interview about his known desire to be known as ‘Defender of faith’, without the definite article, and he responded:

No, I didn’t describe myself as a defender: I said I would rather be seen as ‘Defender of Faith’, all those years ago, because, as I tried to describe, I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of the Faith, you can also be protector of faiths. It was very interesting that 20 years or more after I mentioned this – which has been frequently misinterpreted – the Queen, in her Jubilee address to the faith leaders, said that as far as the role of the Church of England is concerned, it is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. I think in that sense she was confirming what I was really trying to say – perhaps not very well – all those years ago. And so I think you have to see it as both. You have to come from your own Christian standpoint – in the case I have as Defender of the Faith – and ensuring that other people’s faiths can also be practised.

This is the essential aegis of the Church of England; a canopy beneath which people of all faiths and none are free to express their beliefs in the public square, or not, as they wish. The late Queen’s words, delivered in a speech at Lambeth Palace to an ecumenical gathering of faith leaders during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, were a perfect articulation of the essential duality of her role as Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England; her mission being both temporal and spiritual. She paid tribute “to the particular mission of Christianity and the general value of faith in this country”. Christianity, note, is particular: it is the Faith. Other faiths are of “general value”, not only because they are “sources of a rich cultural heritage”, but also because they provide “critical guidance” for the way many families live their lives and treat each other. She continued:

Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

And so King Charles III is Defender of the Faith; the true, healing, reconciling, salvific faith. Communities are not created or sustained by Christian coercion, but by nurture and love. We preach the gospel in season and out, but we live a life of service, humility and love. Without the latter, the former is a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Queen Elizabeth II, of blessed memory, knew and understood this.

God save the King.